I’m willing to bet that you, much like myself, shed a healthy tear or two when you heard the news about phenomenal pop diva Whitney Houston’s passing. I’m not even going to lie – it completely ruined my weekend (me, me, me, right?) to know that someone whose music literally created my imagination (What? I can walk through a mirror and be wearing a sequinned gown and feather boa? Stop playing!), but it also hurt because we all knew she had been struggling in the past decade or so. Even though it is in incredibly poor taste to ask what happened, I was still curious.
A lot has been – and will continue to be – written about her bouts with drug and alcohol abuse, her tumultuous relationship with The [Self-Proclaimed] King of R&B Bobby Brown (I can’t hate too much – Michael Jackson was The [Self-Proclaimed] King of Pop), and whether or not the former is due to the latter. Deep down in my heart, as I read all of these beautifully written articles, I can’t help but wonder if we’re focusing our attention in the wrong direction.
From what I’ve most recently seen, Whitney’s cause of death is officially “undetermined,” but the coroner apparently told her family that it could potentially be a combination of alcohol and prescription pills that allowed her to fall asleep in the tub and, well… we know the rest, unfortunately.
This speaks, loudly, to me. Not just because I can do the “I’m Your Baby Tonight” “choreography” in my sleep, but because I know how loose many of us are with prescription medication. I know how many people are, shall we say… hyper-comfortable with mixing their anti-anxiety medications with their “nightly glass of wine” as a “way to wind down.” I know what kind of market there is for those pills, and I know how many people are buying them on that black market and abusing them to “relax.” Those people will look at Whitney with scorn and disgust, because she was “an addict that never got it together.”
I’ve learned a lot about addiction over the years. As I’ve written about before, I approach my emotional eating habit as an addiction, and that was why I believe I’ve experienced so much success thus far with my recovery. I understand the inability to cope with something major in my life; I understand that moment when you find something – anything – that provides you with the ability to escape that painful reality and experience real, genuine, blinding pleasure instead; I understand how that something then becomes your regular “go-to” for whenever you want or need to experience any kind of pleasure in your life.
I also know what it’s like to have to escalate your use of your “go-to” because your mind and body become numb to it in your regular doses. You have to escalate your use because, since you know it helps you and makes you feel better, normal, even whole, habituation takes over and compels you to just keep going until you get that feeling, again.
It wasn’t cocaine, for me. It wasn’t gambling. It wasn’t sex. It wasn’t pills that could’ve turned my brain inside out. For me, it was regular old food.
For me, it was something that we need to survive. An act that people engage in, every day, was an act that I was abusing and using for means outside of that survival. I knew which foods to buy to get my fix, I knew which places to hide it so as to escape judgment and I knew that once I’d achieved my “high,” it was time to put the package down. I’d finally gotten my fix. No sense in wasting any “product.”
Addiction is about a dependence on a product (or action) for bringing a chemical response. Pleasure is related to the reward centers of the brain, which compel us to not only recognize items that bring us pleasure but seek out those items when pleasure is needed. Dopamine, a key component of the reward center, plays a big part in our ability to control our emotional responses to situations. In short, if you’ve relied on external sources to help you cope with negative circumstances in the past, it makes rehabilitation difficult if you haven’t developed alternative coping mechanisms.
That’s what’s so peculiar about someone who admitted to having a cocaine habit having drugs like Xanax on hand. Xanax, an anti-anxiety medication, would help “calm down” or “keep calm” someone who struggles with coping with day to day function. It, honestly, looks like she went from using an illegal substance to cope to using a legal substance to cope. The legalities don’t make it any less problematic.
So many of us want to ask the wrong questions about what happened to Whitney, and any other person who suffers a similar fate. We’re hurt. We want to ask a thousand “whys.” We want to lay blame. I think the pain from that hurt is okay. I think it’s a necessary part of the grieving process. It’s the other two, the “whys” and the “blame,” that are a struggle for me.
When it comes to situations like this, I think it’s only fair to ask “why,” because we are human beings who learn from the missteps of our peers. We want to understand “how” so that we can, hopefully, help someone else. Our motives aren’t entirely altruistic – we want to save ourselves from the pain of losing another loved one – but it’s never been said that helping someone else can’t help yourself, too.
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As for blame, hmm… is addiction about blame? I don’t know, especially when we are talking about someone who has lost their life, already. It’s hard for any of us, on the epitome of “the outside,” to be able to diagnose blame because all we knew of Whitney, a mega star in the era of “no Internet” where the tabloid reigned supreme, was what People or Star told us… which, in the grand scheme of things, wasn’t much. But in a hurt, blood-thirsty quest, we want to saddle someone – namely, her husband – with the eternal guilt of being the reason why she is no longer here. It just… I don’t know. It feels cruel to me.
Neither addiction – nor succumbing to it – are a result of a bad husband. I know this because many a woman who married a man who developed an addiction have left him. Neither addiction – nor succumbing to it – are a result of being from Newark. (A part of my initiation into being a New Yorker is taking pot shots at Jersey. Methinks I’m not so good at it, though.) Neither addiction – nor succumbing to it – is the fault of the people around an addict. Why? You can’t be around a person twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, and you’ll never know what they’re doing when you’re not there.
To me, rehabilitation involves “intervention” for a reason. It’s a reminder that you have reasons to live. You have a life to fight for. You have people in your corner who support you. There is satisfaction in life just as valuable as – if not more than – your addiction. Intervention is much more than that, too, but the underlying point is that it serves as a jumping off point for them realizing that the fight needs to be within them, and no one else. Just like I keep talking about the “come to fitness” moment? It’s a lot like that. Maybe a “come to sobriety” moment.
I guess, in all of this, I’m crushed by the lack of empathy… but I’m disturbed by how easy we write this off as the “misfortunes of a drug addict,” as if our ‘other’ addictions are more noble. Be it sex, cocaine, alcohol, gambling, shopping, food, video games, Internet or whatever, abusing it (and choosing to continue to use it) after being educated about the negative effects is dangerous. An addiction to shopping may not turn your brain into swiss cheese, but it ruins your life just the same. An addiction to video games – using them as a vessel for escaping reality and deriving pleasure – may not result in death but it, too, can ruin your life. Your prescription for your Xanax might be legal, but if you’re using it in an unhealthy fashion, it’s still something to consider. A BGG2WL reader said it best on twitter: “some of you can’t even put the cookies and chips down; I don’t even wanna know how you’d handle cocaine.”
It’s a natural part of grieving to have questions and feel pain but, to me, our best bet is to use this as a time to check ourselves, even remind ourselves that we are not infallible, ourselves. Ask ourselves, how do I cope? Do I use an unhealthy practice to cope? Do I cope in a way that could ruin – or end – my life? Am I being honest with myself in regards to how I handle stress? Am I thinking it through or am I hiding from it and letting it build up? Those were key elements to me understanding my own addiction, and questions that I constantly ask to keep myself in check. I am all too familiar with the reality of addiction: all it takes is being caught in the perfect storm with no umbrella, and I like to be prepared.
It’s unfortunate that Whitney’s legacy carries this enormous and painful history, but at least we know that now, the weight is off of her shoulders. We would be wise to check the weight accumulating on our own, as well.